Written by Jo Nesbo, translated by Don Bartlett — Did you read the last Harry Hole book, Phantom? If you did you’ll know that the character’s future is a little ambiguous. We’re not going to spoil things, but it’s no surprise that here, instead of a new Harry Hole story, we have an old one. The Bat is in fact the very first Harry Hole novel Jo Nesbo wrote, back in 1997, before he’d sold over 14 million books. Released for the first time in English, it’s a darkness-tinged thrill ride all right, but you can tell when reading it that Nesbo was still very much honing his craft.
The Bat, it’s explained inside, is a character representing death to certain Aboriginal peoples in Australia, where the book is set. Hole lands in Sydney to assist local police as they investigate the rape and murder of Norwegian national Inger Holter. The pretty, young blonde was violated, strangled and thrown off a cliff, but unfortunately for the killer was not washed out to sea. The Australians want to reassure tourists about the safety of their country and Hole – whom they refer to as Holy – is there in a diplomatic capacity to assist and observe.
Hole is greeted at the airport by Aboriginal detective Andrew Kensington, a man with a big heart, a gregarious personality and plenty to share about the local culture. He’s also an ex-boxer and has a few dark secrets which unfold later in the story. A host of Australian policemen with various abilities are introduced and while ‘Holy’ is kept at arm’s length at first, his terrier-like nature soon puts him at the centre of the case. He hooks up with a Swedish barmaid who knew Holter, and meets a range of odd characters – pimps, prostitutes, transvestites and fighters – in Sydney’s bohemian quarter where he’s staying.
After comparing the killing to other unsovled cases from around Australia, Hole and his wallaby colleagues realise it’s connected to similar murders. He and Kensington brace drug dealers in forgotten outback towns, go toe-to-toe with thugs in taverns, and turn the screw on pervs who might know something.
That dreamlike quality to Nesbo’s writing is more evident in The Bat than in subsequent Harry Hole novels. He weaves in Aboriginal lore and mythology to great effect, leaving you wondering whether it’s symbolic or merely for texture. Of course, Harry Hole contemplates all the grief in his life along the way. You find out more about his background, his parents and why he’s a recovering alcoholic. His refusal to drink is shattered as the case takes its toll.
They’ve started making some of Nesbo’s works into films, and even in this first novel the author revels in theatrical set pieces. A cabaret act executes a drag Marie Antoinette and police think it’s a murder. It’s not but ten minutes later a transvestite clown is dismembered by the killer backstage, using the same guillotine. Similarly, there are fights and Hole is even caught with his pants during his explosive mid-mystery drinking binge. Beyond the myths, hidden meanings and strange intentions of the characters, The Bat is full of action, new twists and surprises.
The other Harry Hole novels have plenty of implausible moments, but there are a few in The Bat that will make you cringe. Will his girl come back to him after catching him with a prostitute? Sure she will. New characters with special skills appear from nowhere to solve problems at crucial moments, then disappear again. Carried along by the action, you may eventually stop and wonder just why a police department in a big city like Sydney would relinquish control and let a mad, troubled and drunken Oslo detective – who’s meant to be back in Scandinavia – run the show.
With the Australian backdrop, and with Nesbo frequently exploring aspects of the local culture, The Bat is more colourful than the Harry Hole novels set in Norway. However it deals with many of the same dark themes and at many points in the story the worst possible outcome is what exactly occurs. It’s a must-read if you’re a Nesbo fan, and if you’ve never read a Harry Hole novel before, being the first one it’s naturally a fantastic place to start. The Bat is gripping, terrifying, visceral and baffling. Bring on The Cockroach, the other as yet untranslated Harry Hole book.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars